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Building a successful blog

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BY MATT MILLER
In 2006, my wife Jennifer suggested I attend a free one-day course on starting a blog, offered by our local university’s continuing education program. I came up with various excuses. I considered blogs to be superficial and not “real writing.” And I’m a bit of a Luddite. What role could blogging really play in my writing career?
But finally, her persistence won out and I joined the course.
It is not exaggerating to say that one-day class changed the course of my career. The next day, I started a blog called Idaho Nature Notes. That initial blog led to other online assignments. Today, I run The Nature Conservancy’s two global blogs, and blogging forms a significant portion of my job. It has enabled me to report on science and nature stories around the world. It has also led to other writing opportunities with print media.
If you don’t blog, you should. Whatever your goals as an outdoor communicator, chances are a blog can help you get there. A blog can be a way to tell your organization’s stories. A blog can connect you to new readers, building an audience for your books or other communications products. And a blog can showcase your writing abilities, helping to build freelance contacts.
There’s a lot of conflicting information (and misinformation) out there on blog writing. It’s important to remember that online media is constantly changing. Once, blogs were literally Web logs — often personal accounts, kind of like online diaries. Now, blogs cover any Web format that is regularly updated and allows commenting. The blog, in many ways, has become the online magazine — with as much diversity in length, style and subject matter as print publications.
Here are some ideas I’ve found to be helpful in building blog readership. I realize that many are common sense (or should be) for a communications professional. Yet I find that too many blogs ignore these rules and follow outdated advice.
1. Know what you want to accomplish.
Many people like the idea of a blog, but they have no clear plan. There will be a flurry of activity for a few months. Then they end. Do you want a blog to sell your book? Connect to your organization’s members? Advance a cause? Build your reputation as a writer or photographer? Write down a brief list of goals of what you want the blog to accomplish. That should help direct your content and keep you on track.
2. Be disciplined.
Yes, this is the most painfully obvious rule of blogging. It’s also the most ignored. If you aren’t updating your blog regularly, you have no chance of building a readership. When I started Idaho Nature Notes, my boss gave her blessing, provided I updated once a week. The Cool Green Science blog I run now has new content five times a week. That can be a beast, but the blog receives great traffic. I am surprised by the number of excellent writers who don’t keep their blogs current. Set deadlines for yourself and keep them. Would you miss deadlines for a magazine or newspaper? Of course not. Approach blogging with the same mindset. The same goes for clean copy. This is a public showcase of your work. Pay attention to spelling, grammar and accuracy, and avoid frivolous and inflammatory content. Too often, writers proclaim it’s “just a blog,” as if the online format suddenly frees them from usual responsibilities. Let’s be clear: a blog is a highly visible reflection of your writing. Approach it with the same professionalism you would for any other work.
3. Know your audience.
A persistent myth is that there is one “online audience.” This leads to erroneous notions like “people only read short, pithy stories online.” Of course, many people do read only short, pithy pieces online. Many people also read only short, pithy pieces in print. This does not mean there’s not a market for The New Yorker or Gray’s Sporting Journal. It’s the same for online publications. I know a lot about The Nature Conservancy’s members. In part, this is because they write me when they like something, or when they don’t. I pay attention to my readers, and not to silly rules that suggest that I won’t attract readers if I write a piece longer than 200 words.
4. Focus on quality content and forget the gimmicks.
I’ve seen some suggest that you don’t need any content but only need to load your website with key words. Don’t get me wrong: optimizing your content for search engines is important. I pay attention to titles and populate my keywords (if this doesn’t make sense, drop me an email or catch me in McAllen and I’ll explain). But there is a place for quality content online. This ties to the above rules. Know what you want to accomplish and who you want to reach. Grantland is a hugely popular blog and regularly runs features of 3,000 to 4,000 words. People are devoted to that site because it has great writing and storytelling. I get the most negative feedback from Cool Green Science readers when I do short pieces, because our readers like “more depth.”
5. Know what content is blog worthy.
Many organizational blogs are essentially online flea markets; they are stocked with a mix of event announcements, press releases, sponsor promos and a mish-mash of other stuff. This is all fine for a website. Leave it off your blog. Your blog should predominantly be stories, essays and opinion — what readers will comment on and share. Think of it as a magazine. You want features and columns, not press releases.
6. Find your niche.
Know your strengths and expertise, and capitalize on that. I have found that there is a real audience for the weirder side of natural history — shrew-eating trout, suicidal lemmings or other bizarre mammals. I spend a lot of time with wildlife biologists, travel widely and read a lot, so I have a wealth of these stories. These blog entries are often picked up by other outlets, from the Huffington Post to The New York Times, building significant traffic for my efforts. Other outlets know I can provide this content and turn to me for stories on these topics. Figure out what your areas of expertise are and become a resource for other media. The blogosphere has plenty of room (and audience) for the quirky, the odd and the obscure.
7. Read other blogs.
I am an obsessive reader, and have continued that habit with blogs. I want to know what my heroes, my peers and my competitors are doing. This gives me benchmarks for success and helps determine what my audience wants. I study blogs that work and learn from them. It also helps me promote and share my content. ♦
— Matt Miller is science writer for The Nature Conservancy. Read his columns on the blog Cool Green Science at blog.nature.org/science. Talk to him about blogging by contacting him at m_miller@tnc.org.
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